The North awakens - Why there is more to the UK’s tech scene than London

Clarence Digital

22/06/16

When you think of the United Kingdom’s tech scene, London and it’s so-called ‘Silicon Roundabout’ automatically springs to mind. The capital city has been perfectly placed to develop itself as an international tech hub; a population that has edged itself over 7 million and a world famous location that takes no convincing to attract the sharpest and most innovative minds in the technological sphere. East and Central London has the power, reputation and clout to maintain itself as a hotbed for tech development.

But the UK’s biggest city can no longer lay claim to being the country’s only tech base, as new hubs are popping up all across the country. Initiatives from the British government, as well as the rapid development of companies that are spread out across the British Isles, has seen London’s sphere of influence diminish. The UK can lay claim to its only software company listed in the FTSE 100, the developers of the global hit Grand Theft Auto video game series, and the brains behind a revolutionary quantum chip that has changed the way car engines run completely. Yet none of the companies responsible for such incredible achievements call London home. They can be found in Newcastle, Leeds and Bristol respectively, as evidence of the way British IT and development is branching out and becoming decentralised. The face of the UK’s tech sector is changing. 

Newcastle

One of England’s most northerly cities, Newcastle has a reputation for its Geordie spirit, sporting history and as a city built on its traditional industries of coal mining and manufacturing, as well as a recent boom in retail. However, the Northumbrian city has so much more to offer than the industries on which it grew. A burgeoning tech and IT scene is developing in the heart of Newcastle and it looks set to keep on growing, particularly as the economy of the United Kingdom stabilises and pushes towards a more tech-based future.

Newcastle has begun to earn itself a reputation as a city with a particular strength for software development, technical support and, most recently, an involvement in the gaming sector. Such an appetite for tech development was whetted by the arrival of gaming giants Ubisoft, who established a subsidiary base in the city in 2015. Ubisoft Reflections was set up in an effort to tap into the flood of graduates from Newcastle University’s highly-rated Computer Science and other tech courses, bringing in the most innovative young minds in the region. Having the third biggest video game publisher in the world set up a base in the city led to the creation of more than 100 jobs and furthered Newcastle’s claim as a new tech hub to challenge London, according to The Business Journal.

Indeed, many observers have declared the Geordie city to be the UK’s second biggest tech hub after the Silicon Roundabout and Newcastle has experienced an influx of new tech companies recently. With the second highest number of start-up tech companies in the UK in 2013, the city’s burgeoning development has led to over 25,000 workers employed in the industry, reports The Journal in its business section.

A key factor in the ever-increasing number of tech companies in the region is the presence of Ignite, an accelerator programme for new start-up companies looking to make their mark in the industry. Based in Newcastle, Ignite has played a key role in the decentralisation and set the groundwork for dozens of companies located outside of London to be successful. 

With more than five years’ worth of experience in helping new companies establish themselves in the industry, Ignite’s model is simple yet effective. In exchange for an 8% equity stake, it looks to recruit 10 start-ups at a time and provide them with investment, four months’ worth of training, and a long-term support partnership once the programme has been completed. According to the Guardian, the venture has been an overwhelming success, with the first set of graduate companies bringing in investment to the tune of £15 million, whilst being valued together at almost £60 million.

Under the watchful eye of the Angel of the North, the great towering structure that serves as a constant reminder of Newcastle’s industrial history, the city has hit the accelerator pedal and driven its way to the front of the UK’s tech industry. 

Manchester 

The north-west has a proud history of traditional industries, but Manchester is now leading the fight against London when it comes to being a tech hub. The city already has a global appeal from its huge successes in both sport and music, but this is now being aided by a tech scene to rival any other in the country.

Manchester has benefited from an increased drive from higher education institutions to promote the development of technology and can count on the National Graphene Institute from the University of Manchester, at a cool £61 million, for support, the Financial Times claims.

Yet perhaps the biggest factor in Manchester’s growth is its increasing importance in media and communication. The digitalisation of media in the UK has helped Manchester strengthen its standing as a tech hub, particularly with the arrival of the BBC from London to neighbouring Salford. Relocating to the purpose-built MediaCityUK in 2013, the BBC’s decision to create a new base for itself was indicative of how important the region is becoming on a nationwide scale. Fellow terrestrial broadcasters ITV also have a base in the MediaCityUK, adding the influence Manchester holds within the country’s media and television. 

Meanwhile, as recently as April 2016, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s pumped cash into the city as it looked to create around 150 jobs in tech and IT, according to Manchester Evening News. Following its proposed takeover of Argos, the company has looked to increase its online profile and turned to Manchester as the ideal hub to involve itself in.

Arguably the best place to look for proof that London does not hold a monopoly on the UK’s tech scene is in Manchester’s famous Northern Quarter. Home to a rapidly increasing number of start-ups, the district is becoming more tech-savvy with every passing month. The Northern Quarter can boast such success stories as TechHub and the Sharp Project, to name but a few.

Leeds

Arguably the big winner of the British government’s drive to decentralise and reduce the domineering presence of London, northern powerhouse Leeds has established itself as one of Europe’s most important cities. With key governmental departments being relocated to the West Yorkshire city, as well as a redevelopment programme that has changed the skyline completely, Leeds has made its mark on the tech industry.

As the home of Rockstar Games, Leeds can lay claim to hosting a tech company that has produced a video game series with over 225 million copies sold, generating more than $2 billion in revenue. Indeed, the Grand Theft Auto series has proved a huge hit with teenagers and adults the world over, as well attracting controversy at every step. Nonetheless, it is indicative of the power and prestige of the Yorkshire city.

Broadcasting giants Sky recently announced plans to create a new technology centre within Leeds, bringing in over 400 hundred jobs in the tech field. Many of Sky’s existing operations are based within the city and Sky Group chief executive Jeremy Darroch insisted, “With our investment in Leeds, we are creating one of the largest digital communities in the UK.” 

The claims are not without foundation, with TechWeek Europe reporting that Leeds is set to host the second Software Engineering Academy in 2016, four years after the first was held in London. The Academy looks to promote young tech minds by offering apprenticeships, training, and job opportunities to create software, whilst tapping into the talent on offer within the city.

Meanwhile, Asda, CallCredit and William Hill all have significant bases in Leeds, whilst start-ups can find support from initiatives such as Agile Yorkshire and the Entrepreneurial Spark, according to Tech City Insider. Leeds now employs more than 45,000 people in its tech industries, making it an increasingly major player in the game, with the potential to lead Britain’s new tech scene.

Bristol and Bath 

Further south, Bristol and Bath are leading the fight to take the UK’s tech sector away from the capital. Situated just 12 miles apart, the pair play host to more than 1,100 tech companies between them.

The growth of tech within the region has led to Invest Bristol & Bath creative and digital sector specialist David Maher Roberts to declare, “The tech and creative sector in Bristol and Bath has an excellent reputation for being home to an innovative and experienced talent pool, as well as a start-up-friendly environment.

“London is no longer the only place for tech and creative companies to grow and prosper; the Bristol and Bath region has established itself as a place where innovative ideas are constantly being turned into ground-breaking products and services.” 

The comments are not without merit, particularly as a report produced by McKinskey and Centre for Cities concluded that the south west’s technology industry had provided more than 70,000 jobs and pumped around £4.8 billion into the economy.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that the Bristol and Bath tech cluster is seeing a rapid rise in the number of start-ups kicking off in the region. With a proud history that includes Hewlitt Packard being based there, Bristol is now home to a number of incubators around the Temple Meads Station area of the city. Likewise, Bath can boast of Eden Ventures, one of the country’s leading early-stage tech investors.

Having dominated the UK tech scene for so long, London has now found itself under threat from some of the most rapidly developing locations in the country. The Silicon Roundabout is no longer the go-to place for tech heads, with the north and the south west providing a very real alternative. It appears that the capital’s influence will continue to wane as more time, money, and experience is pumped into the growing hubs dotted around the UK. It is a great sign for the decentralisation of the country and for the many tech companies that had previously complained of a London-centric approach to the industry. With one of the hottest scenes in Europe, Britain is certainly benefiting from its wider range of tech hubs.